Summer 1984from The Loved Ones
The boy was six, the girl nine. Their father, Charles Frederick Douglass Lee, was himself one of five children; each had looked after the next while Charles’s mother worked night shifts and his grandmother worked days at the same corner store owned by a cousin. He’d come up fine and didn’t believe in babysitters. It was his wife, Alice, who insisted the girl was not old enough to be left alone with the boy. “What if there’s an emergency,” Alice Lee said to Charles. She often made statements in the form of
questions. She said “emergency” in a near whisper.
“She’s a smart girl, she knows how to dial a phone.” Charles favored the girl, loved her more, even; but he was careful not to show it as much as he might. Veda was dark-skinned, almost as dark as him, darker than the boy, but had most of her mother’s features—heart-shaped face, gray eyes, celestial nose. She did have his full lips and bright, large-toothed smile, everyone said so. She had his dark, purplish gums, too; though no one said so. Veda’s hair was dark brown, soft and wavy, but her mother didn’t understand as well as her father what this meant, how lucky she was.
The boy, Benny, was light-skinned, but he had his father’s thick eyebrows and prominent forehead. He was a big boy for his age and barreled around like a fullback, shoulders squared, hands balled into fists. He couldn’t yet read, or wouldn’t. Sometimes he still wet the bed. He’d bitten other children, more than once, and crashed full-force into anything in-progress that he hadn’t himself started—a jigsaw puzzle, another boy’s Lego house, his sister’s My Little Ponies arranged for a pageant. Charles marveled at Alice’s calm, even tones with both children. Sometimes he loved her for it, sometimes he hated her. Sometimes he wanted to slap the boy and shove his wife; sometimes the other way around.
Alice Lee was going back to work. She was a social worker and had found a position at a Korean nursing home in Silver Spring. She’d been home with the children all these years and was fortunate to get the job after being out of the workforce. Alice did have a nurse practitioner’s degree—she’d gone to night school when Benny started pre-K—and the nursing home needed someone like her, who could communicate well enough with the Mexican service staff (Peace Corps in Chile), with the residents and doctors (DoD educational assistant, Yongsan Base in Seoul), and with the pharmaceutical and insurance people on the phone.
For weeks Charles and Alice argued over whether to hire a babysitter—“discussed,” Alice would say—and in the end Charles gave in, mostly for the girl’s sake. Why should she have to watch over the boy.
“There’s a nurse at the home whose daughter could do it,” Alice said. “She sounds perfect. Polite, responsible. Her mother has been with the home for many years.”
So she’s already arranged it, Charles thought. Of course she has.
“Her name is Lee,” Alice said, like an offering, and with a chuckle. “Hannah—the girl—Hannah Lee.”
A Korean girl. Charles didn’t like it. Just as he didn’t like his wife working at that nursing home. Did the mother of the girl know about him? Charles didn’t have to ask. No way she did. Not yet. Alice would wait to reveal it, her gamman-saram husband—to the mother, to all her coworkers—after she’d proven herself trustworthy, likeable. His wife was a smart girl, too. Lee was likely a useful name to have around there.
Charles wasn’t surprised: so many of them were named Lee. He’d gotten used to it in Korea, the bitter irony. The KATUSAs had found it especially amusing: Lee-san, they’d called him, though he generally didn’t take it as friendliness.
Hannah Lee came by herself on a Saturday afternoon in late May to meet the children and be shown around. When the bell rang, Alice was in the backyard with the boy. Charles was scanning the scores and listening to WJFK sports; he got up from his recliner to answer.
The girl wore a navy T-shirt dress with a braided belt hanging below the waist, jelly sandals, and shiny lip gloss (in fact it was just Vaseline; her mother did not allow makeup). Her eyeglasses were perfectly round, her hair wavy and brown at the ends. Her legs were long, and she looked older than Charles had expected. Thirteen, Alice had said. Maybe it was her handbag, a square Gucci that was slung across her body and reminded Charles instantly of the fakes sold in Itaewon by the dozens to officers’ wives. Or maybe it was the solemnity of her pale, rectangular face. When she smiled and introduced herself, it seemed to require effort, an awkward exertion. But it wasn’t his black face that troubled her. Charles knew that look—he’d borne it over and again from Alice’s friends and family. No, it wasn’t that; it was rather the strain of nicety, a learned affect of cheerfulness that did not come naturally to the girl. Alice had apparently missed it on the phone the day before—She sounds perfect—and this knowledge gave Charles Lee a small burst of pleasure.
The phone rang just as Soon-mi squatted by the flowerbed with trowel and kitchen knife. She could hear it through the sliding screen door, and so could Chong-ho from across the small yard. The day was mild and still and overcast, and the deep ink-blue of the Baptisia—false indigo it was sometimes called—seemed to ring brightly, shockingly, along with the telephone.
It was late in the season to be dividing, but the forecast called for cooler weather and light rain tomorrow, Sunday, into Monday. There was space in the flowerbed that bordered the back of the house where a peony had been lost to an early spring storm (the gutter had come crashing down). Soon-mi thought she could divide and replant all three indigos, maybe finish the weeding she’d started earlier, too, before dinner.
Chong-ho looked to Soon-mi from the vegetable garden. Not with his eyes, but with his attention. The phone rang a second and third time.
Soon-mi stood and removed her gloves, laying them down along with her tools on the patio table. She slid the screen door open and stepped through.
Chong-ho looked up and saw Soon-mi’s blue rubber slipper dangling from her foot. The slipper dropped to the doormat as Soon-mi disappeared into the house. Who could be calling, Chong-ho wondered, at this time on a Saturday. Probably one of Hannah’s school friends. That girl who was always calling, the fat one with the brown skin and short skirt who talked too fast. She’d come after school with Hannah once but then never again. Maybe Soon-mi had said something, though likely not; Hannah would not need to be told. Chong-ho grimaced and went back to transplanting the go-chu.
During the week sometimes there were sales calls, but never on weekends. Soon-mi thought it could only be one person, and she let out an audible sigh when she heard James’s voice—as if her wishing had made it so.
“Hi, Ummah.” There was an echo, along with yelling and laughing in the background.
“James?” Soon-mi said. She’d raised her voice, and it cracked. “Why so much noisy?”
“Those are just my suitemates. I’m in the bathroom with the phone. Remember when I switched the long cord from your phone last time? It’s the only way to have any privacy around here.”
“Roommates, Ummah. I have two, I told you. They’re okay. Just blowing off steam before exams.”
“Unh. Exam. You have exam now. That’s why you call today?”
“Exams are next week,” he said. “I have study groups tomorrow, all day.” There was a muffled bang, then the crash of aluminum cans hitting the floor. James covered the mouthpiece and hissed, “Hey, dickheads, knock it off.”
“Sorry, they’re just horsing around. Anyway. Um...”
They spoke for just a few minutes, as always. When he asked for Hannah, Soon-mi said she’d gone out, and didn’t mention the babysitting job. It was a long story, and she didn’t care to get into it; Hannah could tell him herself next time. And who knew how long it would last anyway. The American woman, Alice Lee—her children were old enough to be home alone, really.
“Tell her to call me sometime,” James said. “Just, you know. Whenever.”
“Unh, okay,” Soon-mi said. She told him to make sure he ate well, not just ramen noodles, and he laughed, even though she wasn’t making a joke. Then they hung up.
Soon-mi stepped back out onto the patio and retrieved her trowel and knife. As she pulled on her gloves she became thoughtful and laid the tools again on the table, then walked toward the far end of the yard, the sunny corner, where Chong-ho was putting the last of the go-chu seedlings in the ground.
“Moh han-eun goon-yo? What is it?” Chong-ho handed her a seedling, then proceeded to mix in the fertilizer he’d just sprinkled over the hole. Soon-mi cupped the ball of spindly roots in her orange gloves. She told her husband that James was fine and conveyed his reason for calling on a Saturday. Chong-ho clawed at the dirt in the bottom of the hole with both hands—he never wore gloves—making sure the plant food was deeply and evenly mixed.
When he was done, Chong-ho held out his right hand, which was dark with earth, and Soon-mi placed the seedling in his palm. “Hannah missed talking to him.” The words formed themselves, and multiple meanings, from an uneasy place that Soon-mi knew well; though only as a kind of bodily thrumming. She couldn’t have named it, not even to herself.
“Where did she go?”
Soon-mi was silent. She had not anticipated this question; that is, she had not considered how she would answer it. She had been distracted sendingHannah off. Of course Hannah’s father would question the purpose of her having a job: they provided for her, she should be studying. “Out with a friend,” Soon-mi said, and their eyes met briefly as Chong-ho stood to stretch his back. In that glance, Chong-ho was saying, What you tell me is always truth enough, and Soon-mi was saying, I understand the nature of your trust.
Chong-ho squatted again, and Soon-mi knelt next to him. He mixed in the plant food and set the seedlings in the holes. She scooped dirt and filled the gaps, then patted the soil. When they got to the last hole, Soon-mi said, “Hannah should call him. He has good advice for her, I think. He is becoming more responsible, concerned for the younger one.”
Chong-ho said nothing. Soon-mi shifted her weight to achy ankles and hips, and brushed off her knees. As she turned to work on the Baptisias, Chong-ho raised his head and said, “She will be home for dinner?”
“Unh,” Soon-mi said.
Chong-ho lowered his eyes, and with that, it was agreed: he would encourage Hannah to call her brother.
Soon-mi’s slippers made a muted slapping noise against her socks as she walked toward the house. She would have time to divide and transplant only one of the false indigos. She worked from a squat, and when she plunged her trowel into the ground, loosening the root ball on all sides and then pulling up from the base of the stalks, she felt how deep and intricate the roots were; how they clung to the earth that fed them. She dug deeper, pulled firmly and evenly from the top, wiggling the plant from side to side. The roots loosened, and Soon-mi thought, Why should Hannah work for the American family? Soon-mi had made the offer to Alice Lee without thinking, though it seemed right at the time. She’d felt relief when the woman wrote down their phone number. Hannah would be occupied, looking after children. Soon-mi was not convinced this was a bad idea; nor a good one, exactly. The uneasy thrumming persisted.
The root ball came up, and Soon-mi fell back on her heels but maintained her squat. She laid the matted, gnarly thing in the dirt and eyed the knife, which she’d staked upright at the border where dirt met grass. She sighed. This was the part she didn’t like. Always she had to remind herself, as she sliced through the bone-white roots and offshoots like baby hairs, that she was regenerating, propagating, and not destroying.
It was the Saturday before Memorial Day, and Kenyon Street was lined with American flags. They shot out like saluting arms from the porch roofs of row houses. The flag on Charles and Alice Lee’s four-bedroom brick was smaller than the neighbors’—colors dull and faded by comparison, material drab. In this way, the house stood out.
Hannah Lee walked east from the Columbia Heights Metro station along a sidewalk that was clean but badly cracked. Weeds and tree roots pushed up with a brute force that made her think of her crooked front tooth—how the baby tooth had hung on stubbornly until the permanent one had to come breaking through at an angle.
There were people sitting on every porch or stoop along the block—black people, mostly old people, a few babies and toddlers in their laps. They stared as Hannah walked by. She stared back. No one smiled. One little boy waved. Hannah was not frightened or nervous, though she had some awareness that perhaps she should be. She didn’t mind—liked it even, a little, this being noticed.
The Lees’ house was exactly mid-block. There was no one sitting on the porch or stoop, just a mess of bicycles and car/truck/train toys, and potted plants, flowers mostly, unkempt and clustered along the left end of the red-painted steps. Hannah liked the house right away, though she could not have said exactly why. She did think of how her father would have scoffed at the annuals in the pots—her parents grew only vegetables and hardy perennials, in large beds that they tended meticulously from March to November—and how her mother would have pursed her lips at the disorder.
Soon-mi had not asked to see the exact address; Alice Lee had told her, “a short walk from the Columbia Heights stop,” but she had not said in which direction. Soon-mi assumed west, toward the park. Alice Lee was a white woman with a master’s degree, after all.
Hannah rang the bell and waited. A man came to the door. He looked surprised, and he stared at Hannah, though in a different way from the porch and stoop people. Hannah did not mind this man’s staring either, though after a few moments of silence she couldn’t help but think of her brother, James, who—now that he was majoring in business instead of smoking pot behind the Burger King—had started calling her “spacey.”
“I’m... Hannah. The babysitter.” Something caught in Hannah’s voice—a flatness swallowed her words. She had intended to be polite, and cheerful. She didn’t know what had come over her: it was like when she had to read Ophelia’s Hey nonny, nonny section in front of the class and she delivered it deadpan, even though she knew she was supposed to be dramatic.
The man was very dark, and big like an athlete. He had a broad, smooth forehead; wide Eskimo cheeks; a strong jaw, which hung slightly open. His eyes were round and shiny and black, like licorice jelly beans, and Hannah looked straight into the right one (his left), which she could just barely do without craning her neck. He was handsome, this man. She liked the word—much more than cute or hot—and enjoyed the pleasure of both beholding and thinking it. (Pleasure, on the other hand, was a word that Hannah would never have thought, or spoken.)
Charles blinked once. Hannah lowered her gaze to the many-colored flecks in his brown sweater vest, then to the crisp white of his T-shirt. Her eyes landed on Charles’s collarbones, which pushed out just like the sidewalk’s thick tree roots.
Hannah cleared her throat. “Mrs. Lee said... three o’clock.” Her feet pressed hard into the concrete, her shoulders dropped from her ears. Charles lowered his chin, put one hand on his head as if to rub it, then stepped back from the door. He said her name and got it wrong—Come on in, Anna—and Hannah corrected him: “No, it’s Haa-nah.” The voice that came out this time was strangely familiar—it was the one she normally heard only inside her head. Not rude exactly, but absent the interrogative tone that all the girls had begun using.
The voice had raced out. Hannah wished she could chase after the words and smash them with her hands like ants, but then Charles Lee’s hand came off his head, licorice eyes rolling up and smiling bright. “Sorry, right. Come in, Haa-nah.” Voice warm and deep. Not deep like a tuba, but lighter, and a little sad, like a clarinet. Hannah stepped past, two long strides, and into the house.
Charles led Hannah through the kitchen to the back door. Hannah kept both hands on her purse. In new places she felt loose and awkward with her hands dangling at her sides; she always wanted to touch things, like a blind person groping for direction.
Charles opened the screen door and stepped out onto a cement landing. “Alice,” he called, and motioned for Hannah to descend the steps. His voice had changed: it was both heavier and more floaty. Hannah watched her feet as she took each steep and slanted step. Charles disappeared into the house, the screen door crashing shut.
“No slamming!” A boy stood up from a crouch, sausage finger pointing up in the air.
Alice Lee was kneeling in the grass. She raised herself up without using her hands, brushed dirt from her denim pedal pushers, then nudged a bouncy blonde lock from the corner of her eye with a knuckle. “And no shouting, mister,” she said.
The boy was Bennett, after Alice’s maternal great-grandfather. They called him Benny. He grinned, slapped a chubby brown hand over his mouth, then frog-leaped to another corner of the sandbox, toward a yellow dump truck. Noisy, catastrophic collisions ensued. The boy was all hair, big and Brillo-y, the same burlap-sack color of his skin. He wore a T-shirt two sizes too big, shorts that went down to his calves. He was an ugly boy, and not a little frightening.
“You’re Hannah,” Alice said, smiling with her lips but frowning with her eyes.
It was an odd greeting; it made one feel caught out somehow.
Charles leaned on the kitchen sink drinking a Pabst and looking out the window. He felt for the girl. He watched his wife amble over in her cowgirlish way, reaching out her hand. The two were likely the same height, but Alice slouched slightly—or maybe it was just her sharp shoulders and short neck, it was hard to tell. Charles did not care to watch anymore. He went back to the scores, to his La-Z-Boy.
Out in the yard, Alice said, “So this is it,” spreading her arms. “Did you have any trouble finding us?” Hannah shook her head no, said from Wheaton it was six stops and one transfer, and a short walk from the station, just as Alice had said. “Good, I’m glad it won’t be a long commute for you. Makes everything simpler.” Alice went on to describe the areas of the small yard and what each child liked to do there—Veda at the picnic table with her craft projects, Benny in the sandbox or on the climber. There was a trellis with thick brown vines growing all over it that looked like something out of a children’s storybook. It was in fact a small fig tree whose branches had grown long and snakelike. “Hose play is fine, especially on hot days, but you should hold the hose for them, or else Benny gets a little wild.”
“Should they be in swimsuits?” Hannah asked.
“Veda will want to change. Benny can just lose his shirt.”
“So Benny is six,” Alice continued, as if pointing out yet another feature of the yard.
“Six and a quarter!” Benny shouted.
“Six and a quarter.” Alice rolled her eyes, and Hannah pushed out a small laugh. “Veda is nine, ten in August. She’s at a friend’s house down the street. I’ll show you the rest of the house and then you and I can walk over to the Mitchells’ to pick up Veda. She’s over there enough that you should meet them.” Hannah nodded again. Alice Lee was clearly, thoroughly in charge.
After the tour, which was just a walk around the first floor, Alice told Charles they’d be back in a few minutes. Benny continued to accelerate, crash, and explode things in back. “When you can’t hear him, that’s when he needs checking on.” It was not clear for whom the statement was meant, Hannah or Charles.
The front gate closed behind them; Hannah and Alice headed west to the Mitchells’. With her mind, Hannah looked back toward the house; with her eyes, she noticed Alice Lee’s bouncy blonde hair. It was just the style she herself had hoped for when she’d gone for a perm. On Alice Lee, though, with her pointed shoulders and skinny legs, it looked somehow not-right—like movie-star sunglasses on a cloudy afternoon.
They walked in the opposite direction from the station—just two streets over, but a different neighborhood altogether. The sidewalks were wider, and even; the faces mostly white, and relatively young. On one side of the street the houses were very tall and lean—all brick, and without porches. Some of them looked like castles, with their bay windows and turrets. On the other side, the porch roofs were held up by beautiful white pillars. None of the houses on the Mitchells’ street had chain-link fences.
Hannah thought how her father would consider all these houses inferior—attached to one another, with tiny yards. But Hannah liked them—the way she liked chess, which her friend Raj had taught her, and memorizing vocabulary and verb conjugations for Madame Glissant’s French class. Anyway, she knew her father missed a lot of things; that he and her mother lived so much apart from others, and that they didn’t—couldn’t, somehow—see everything clearly.
Alice stopped in front of a fancy iron gate and let out a mysterious sigh. It was a tall porchless house with green double doors. They ascended the steps, and Alice rang the bell. “Karen’s a pediatrician, so I never worry when Veda is over here on the weekends.” Alice spoke in tight, confident tones, like a receptionist for an important person. “Amy is Veda’s best friend, and they’re young for sleepovers, but I allow it. Amy’s a very sweet girl.”
On cue, they heard the pitter-patter of small feet. A tiny, full-freckled girl pulled the door open with both hands.
“Hello, Amy,” Alice said, leaning down as if she might pet her.
“We knew it was you,” Amy Mitchell giggled. Her bare feet were cross-stacked on top of each other, one knee bent, in the manner of children who have to go to the toilet. She chewed on a strand of frizzy brown hair, the rest of which was piled elaborately on top of her head with a fistful of bobby pins. Sparkly pink earrings hung from her lobes.
“Hi Alice, come in!” a voice called from within. Alice helped Amy with the door, pushing her way inside.
“They’re here!” Amy called.
“My, what pretty earrings,” Alice said, reaching out with her fingertips.
The girl leaned forward so they could be properly admired. “We’re playing makeover.” Amidst Amy’s freckles were glitter stars, sparkling around her eyes and cheeks.
Amy turned and pattered back toward the kitchen. Alice and Hannah followed. Alice fell behind Hannah, lingering to notice the new bamboo floors. The lighting was different, too—modern half-moon sconces led them down the long hallway. Karen Mitchell had a busy practice and was highly sought-after among the government set; she also published articles and taught at Georgetown. Her husband, Rick, was an estate lawyer.
“Hi, Karen. I guess we’re a little earlier than I said.” It was not quite an apology.
In the kitchen they found Veda sitting in a lacquer bar chair, legs crossed at the ankles. Her hair had been tightly French-braided and tied up in back. A rhinestone tiara circled her crown. Karen Mitchell leaned over her, applying blue eye shadow.
“Ta da!” The shadow was light and shimmery on Veda’s dark skin. The girl sat perfectly upright, and with her hair pulled back so tightly her face looked both calm and alert. Against the shimmer of the blue shadow and the sparkle of the tiara, Veda’s grey eyes turned translucent, shifty and complex like a crystal.
Hannah nearly gaped. The sight of Veda took her breath away, and for a moment, she saw not a made-up child in a stranger’s kitchen, but an African princess.
“My goodness.” Alice’s tone was somehow both airy and taut. Amy giggled with her hand over her mouth.
“Oh, I hope you don’t mind, Alice. I had a feeling this blue would just be spectacular on V. Do you remember wearing this stuff? God, the seventies!”
Alice smiled weakly. She’d never worn eye shadow in her life. Karen’s thin pink T-shirt was sliding off her bare shoulder, pale and freckled like her daughter.
“These next, these next!” Amy was jumping up and down, holding a small black container with a clear plastic top. False eyelashes.
“Put those down, honey. Those are for another time, maybe. In a few years.” Then Karen winked at Hannah. “Maybe when you’re old enough to babysit.”
“Oh, gosh, sorry.” Alice’s voice was looser now, but too loud. “This is Hannah, who I was telling you about. She’ll be watching the kids after school.”
“We have a babysitter, too,” Amy said, twirling around on the ball of one foot. “She’s sixteen, and she has big ones.”
“Amy.” Karen flashed her daughter a look, but she was smiling.
“Well, Hannah is thirteen, but she’s very responsible.”
Hannah flushed. Something had changed in the air. Karen Mitchell stepped back from Veda, who thus far had not said a word.
Veda blinked her eyes and climbed down from the chair, her head and neck held perfectly still. She reached for Hannah’s hand. “You have to help me wash this off now,” she said, as she led her new responsible babysitter to the bathroom. Amy skipped along behind, and Alice stared after them.
Karen cleared her throat. “They had a nice time.”
“She always does,” Alice said, remembering to smile.
“I thought I might have to run to the hospital and leave them with the sitter, but I’m so glad I was able to get someone to cover for me.”
“Mm,” Alice said.
“So Hannah seems nice,” Karen said. “Very calm. How long has she been with you?”
“Oh, just today. It’s her first day.”
“Oh! My gosh. I didn’t realize. I’m sure she’ll be just great. And it’s so terrific, Alice. You back to work. And using all of your... experiences, after all these years. I don’t know if I could do it. If I’d stopped working when Amy was born. But you’re so brave, and you’ve had so many interesting adventures. Remind me—you speak Korean, right?”
“Just a little.”
“And is Hannah’s English pretty good?”
Alice looked at Karen, whose linen miniskirt showed off her athletic thighs. Karen was turned away, gathering the makeup containers. Something hot and scratchy rose in Alice’s throat. “Karen, Hannah speaks perfect English. Don’t you have any colleagues at the hospital who are immigrants?”
Karen turned back with a quizzical look. She might have been considering Alice’s question; she might have been considering Alice.
Alice laughed, a little too sweetly.
Amy came skipping from the bathroom to find the two women locked in silence. It was Alice who turned away first. “How’s it going in there?”
“The soap,” Amy said, “it’s stinging her eyes.”
“Oh, jeez, you need this,” Karen said, reaching for a small blue bottle. “Here you go, pumpkin.”
On the way home, Alice walked with her arm around Veda’ shoulder and said to Hannah, “That Amy really is such a sweet girl.”
It was the first day of summer. The children’s summer. School was out, but Hannah still took the Metro to Columbia Heights station in the afternoons, as she had for the previous three weeks. Alice worked the 3-to-11 shift at the nursing home, which meant she was home until 2:30. “So it will just be an hour earlier every day,” she had said, and Hannah said that would be fine. Her only other plans for the summer were to read Le Petit Prince—which Madame Glissant had recommended to her—and to swim every day, which she did at the pool in Silver Spring. In the fall, Hannah would start high school and intended to be the number-one seed in backstroke. Raj’s brother Ravi had said that the girls’ team sucked, and this, Hannah thought, boded well for her.
Alice did not ask what else Hannah would be doing when she was not watching Veda and Benny. But she did raise Hannah’s wage by fifty cents an hour. “It’s the least we can do. There must be so many other things a girl your age wants to be doing with her summer afternoons.” It was a funny thing to say, Hannah thought—as if Alice Lee had some completely different girl in mind when she said it. But Hannah was happy for the raise; it was the first time she’d had her own money, and she was saving up. For what, exactly, she didn’t yet know.
In the evenings, Charles arrived punctually at six. Sometimes he carried bags of groceries, sometimes takeout Chinese or pizza. He wore short-sleeved collared shirts in light blue or yellow, sometimes plaid, with a white undershirt that showed through; pleated slacks; and black rubber-soled shoes. He did not wear a jacket or tie. Hannah tried to guess where he was coming from, but found she could only guess where he was not coming from: he was not a lawyer or businessman, he did not work at a bank. He was probably not a doctor, either; though maybe he worked in a lab doing research like her father (who wore a pin-striped shirt and gray pants every single day). He was clearly not a plumber or construction worker: he had smooth, long-fingered hands; the half-moons of his fingernails were perfect and white. He looked like he could be a teacher, but then it didn’t make sense that he would be going to work all day in the summertime. Hannah resorted to considering what sort of job the husband of Alice Lee would have, but that got her nowhere. In general, Hannah had trouble holding Alice Lee and Charles Lee as a pair in her mind; except for the first meeting, she never saw them together.
Hannah missed seeing Charles’s licorice-bean eyes, as he always wore aviator sunglasses now, even inside as he unpacked food or handed Hannah her wages. When she left, he would say, “Have a good evening,” and always in an adult voice, as if Hannah were not a young girl but a restaurant hostess, or one of the grocery checkout ladies. When she looked into Charles’s aviator lenses, Hannah tried to pretend she was looking straight into his left eye again, but all she saw was her own warped reflection, in which her forehead appeared huge, and her eyeglasses too round.
On the one hand, Hannah was glad about not having to make conversation. She was glad, for instance, that she did not have to be driven home by Charles Lee. She’d seen a movie once on TV where the husband pulled over on the side of the road, strangled the babysitter, and dumped her in the river. The scariest part, she thought, was that they didn’t show the actual strangling, only the man (who looked like a teacher) reaching toward the girl with both hands; then the camera shifted to the outside of the silver Jeep with tinted windows, which sat still and silent in the dark night.
But then again, if Charles Lee drove her home, maybe he’d take off the sunglasses and not be scary at all. Maybe she’d find a way, again, to make his shiny black eyes go wide and a little confused. Maybe that voice—that strange, familiar, inside-her-head voice—would come back, and Hannah would say things she’d never said out loud before; wonderful, interesting things she only half-knew she’d thought. Maybe, too, she’d hear that sad woodwind warmth again in Charles’s replies.
Before leaving, Hannah always told Charles briefly what they’d done that afternoon, what they’d had for a snack, usually too some report on Benny’s troublesome behavior. On that front, Hannah had found she had no trouble administering effective punishment: the boy hated two things above all else—silence and wearing shoes. And so Time Out meant putting on his sneakers and sitting in the Silence Chair. For his sixth birthday, Alice Lee’s brother had given the boy a plastic digital watch, which he loved and wore every day. To keep him busy Hannah would set the stopwatch for two minutes. The countdown, with its racing milliseconds, at least partially absorbed him; so while he whined and pouted all throughout the lace-up of the sneakers, he kept quiet for the two-minute period. Once, Hannah had offered Veda the chance to set the watch. The girl considered seriously for a moment, brow furrowed; then she raised her eyes and shook her head. I’ll have no part of it, she seemed to be saying, and went back to beading a bracelet.
One evening Hannah described the shoes-and-Silence-Chair procedure to Charles. The children were off washing their hands. “You’re a pro at this,” Charles said. He raised his sunglasses off his nose to rub his eye, then dropped them back down. “You figured it out pretty quickly.”
Hannah had gone home that evening wondering what he’d meant by “it.” She felt she knew even as she tried to understand. “It” had something to do with the girl’s superiority, and the boy’s stupidity. “It” was something she and Charles now shared, this understanding, and was something Hannah felt quite sure Alice Lee did not share, did not understand.
On the Metro ride home now, Hannah sometimes replayed the father-and-babysitter scene from the movie. She imagined herself as the babysitter and Charles as the murderer, only in her version, when he pulled over to the side of the road, Charles reached to pull her into an embrace. Once, while she was swimming backstroke at the pool, his clarinet voice came into her ear. The voice was soothing, and kind, complimenting her on her long, smooth strokes and speed.
The boy was eating lo mein with his fingers and letting the noodles hang down from his mouth. “Raaahhhrrr!” he was saying, “I am the swamp monster!” Benny rolled his eyes up almost to complete whites. Charles sighed into the refrigerator, reached for a Pabst, then closed the door extra slowly. He’d had a long day at work; the East Gate cameras at the stadium were malfunctioning again.
The boy was waiting for someone, his father or Veda, to react.
Charles turned to his son: hair like a tumbleweed on top of a cactus. Swamp monster, indeed. “We’re taking you to the barber shop on Saturday.”
The boy had told his mother he liked his hair this way, and she’d said fine. Later, Charles and Alice had argued over—discussed—it, and Alice told Charles that children need freedom and a sense of self-determination. They also, Charles said, need to learn how to sit still; this was the real reason, he knew, that the boy didn’t like to have his hair cut. He was six years old, what did he know or care about liking his hair one way or another? You’d be surprised, Alice had said, how early it starts now. How early what starts? The importance of appearances, and self-image. Good god, Charles had said, though now he couldn’t remember if he’d said it out loud or only in his head. He’d expressed it one way or another; Alice’s hard silence had made that clear.
As a child, Charles himself always had short hair. His grandmother made sure of it. By the time Afros were getting taller and fuller, he’d enlisted. Only once—when Benny was a toddler just starting to walk on his own (and learning to make fists and throw tantrums), and life was becoming a constant chaos of noise and mess—Charles went two months without a haircut. “You look like Bill Withers,” Alice had said, and she’d sounded pleased about it. Charles remembered her saying that, because he remembered they had sex that night—rare in those days—and Alice had shocked him by giving fellatio. Charles always sensed her semi-unwillingness to use her mouth in any sensual way—she never ate tomatoes because of the sliminess of the seeds, and she bit off bananas with her lips pulled back, teeth bared. That night, though, Charles hadn’t cared. He pushed Alice to her knees. Had he pushed hard? What was “hard”? Where were his hands while she did it? Where were hers? Charles couldn’t remember.
“Stop it, Benny. That’s gross.” Veda had spread a thin layer of pork and cabbage and was rolling her moo shu pancake into a narrow tube.
“Here,” Charles said, reaching over from behind. He unrolled the pancake, dropped in another large spoonful, and re-rolled it. “You need to eat more, V. Skin and bones.” He pinched Veda’s upper arm playfully. She squirmed and giggled, then picked up her pancake with both hands. A strand of hair fell forward into her mouth as she got ready to take a bite; Charles hooked it with his finger and tucked it behind her ear.
On Saturday Charles took Benny to the barber. He’d been going to the shop on the corner of Georgia and Keefer Place since he was a boy. He’d known Vernon Mills for twenty-five years. In the end, this was how Charles had gotten Alice to agree: it would be a tradition, a father-son outing. Alice liked the historical notion of it, and she liked anything “special” that Charles did with the boy. As for Benny, just like Daddy was something to which he was generally responsive; it was how they’d potty-trained him (well, almost) at five and a half.
Vernon was not much of a talker. He let his customers do all the talking, and he listened. Charles had always liked this about Vernon—not only was he comfortable in his silence, but generous. After Nona dropped him off, young Charles would sit quietly in the chair while Vernon clipped away, sometimes humming. Usually he had a cigarette going, ashtray within reach of the chair. Charles would will himself not to cough and stare into the corners of the mirror, where he could see everyone in the shop. The other men, most of whom weren’t there for haircuts or shaves, would talk, and talk. Charles didn’t understand most of it, but what he perceived in the talk was that what they were saying, and what it really meant, were different things. For instance, the tone was often complaining—taxes, mayors, wives, landlords—and yet the collective feeling was one of joy and pleasure. It was something that would come back to him, and ring familiar, in small moments, years later in the Army.
Charles vaguely dreaded bringing Benny to Vernon’s. He considered taking him to a different shop, where no one knew him. His friend Dennis, who he came up with (and who’d talked him into enlisting when they were seventeen and no-count), had always gone to Van’s on 11th and Kenyon. But Charles had already told the boy about Vernon, and whatever lie he might concoct to fool him now would need to be elaborate. Anyway, even if the boy believed it, his mother wouldn’t.
“Well, well, what have we here?” Vernon spoke in almost a whisper now, his lungs and throat worn to reeds. He’d always slouched, but the slouch had curled into a stoop. He seemed ancient, though in fact he couldn’t have been much older than sixty.
“Vern,” Charles said, nodding. “My son. Bennett.”
“Bennett Lee, Charlie’s boy. And how are you, young man?”
“Fine.” Benny was pulling at the hem of his long T-shirt with both hands, twisting back and forth.
“Fine, what, Benny.” Charles put his hand on the boy’s neck and pressed with two fingers.
“Fine... thank you,” Benny mumbled.
“Fine, thank you, sir,” Charles said, and Benny looked up at him with eyes that made Charles shudder. If the boy had the words, Charles thought, if the boy were smart, he’d be saying, You fraudulent fuck, the word “sir” has never once been uttered in our household, and you know it.
Vernon’s nephew Mike interjected then, slapping the chair opposite Vernon’s. “Come right here, little man. I’ll take care o’ you today.” Mike was a fat man, gregarious and cheeky, everything Vernon was not.
Benny plopped into Mike’s chair, staring up at him with wonder. It took a moment for Charles to understand what exactly had captivated the boy. Then Benny said, “I want those,” pointing at Mike’s braids.
They were tight against his big skull, skinny rows hanging down the back of his neck and beaded at the ends. On Fat Mike the Barber, pushing forty, they were fine, they said Cool Cat; he was an exuberant born-again, he led Bible studies for prison inmates, the braids were like plainclothes. On a young boy wearing too-big T-shirts, it was a different story.
“Something tells me your pops might have something to say about that,” Mike said, eyeing Charles.
Benny was quiet, his face radiant. The boy, Charles saw, had a vision of himself—one he was too young to fully understand, and yet, maybe, there was also a child’s wisdom to it, something essential. The importance of self-image, Alice had said. Charles smiled and shook his head—not at Mike, nor at Benny, but somewhere inwardly.
“You know, why not?”
Vernon’s eyes grew wide. Mike’s narrowed. Charles shrugged his shoulders, which, for a blessed moment, felt looser, unburdened. Vernon shook his head too, but in his case it meant, Boy, you better know what you’re doin’. Vernon had had the occasion to meet Alice once, at a wedding.
Benny watched all of this, eyes big and waiting.
“The boy knows what he wants,” Charles said.
Benny pumped his fist into his hip. “Yessss!”
Mike called in his cousin Yvonne from the back, where sometimes her girlfriends came in for manicures and extensions. “We need reinforcements; small, strong hands,” he said to Charles. Then to Yvonne, “What’s your sister doing today?”
“Get her over here. So these gentlemen don’t have to be here all day.”
It did take some time, and while the girls prepped for Benny, Charles sat back in Vernon’s chair. “While we’re at it, let’s shave mine, all the way down. Gimme that baby’s bottom special.”
Vernon shook his head again, this time laughing from the gut. “You want a shave, too?”
“Nah. Let’s grow that.”
Everyone set to work. There was industrious joy in the shop, all around. Mike stood back and let the girls and his uncle work. If he wasn’t already, Mike would be the new boss soon. They needed to bring in more young men to stay in business, maybe this was A New Day, fathers and young sons coming in together, before they started losing the boys to the corners and all the rest.
At one point, Benny did get restless, wiggling around in the chair. Charles reached over and set the boy’s stopwatch, two minutes at a time. It worked like a charm.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Two.