“For a while I could not remember some word
I was in need of,
and I was bereaved and said:
where are you, beloved friend?
~ Mary Oliver
The old man sitting in the front passenger seat of the car, his salt and pepper hair standing on end, let out a long moan, and then he moaned again: “Ohhhhhhhhh,” he said. “Ahhhhhhh. Keep doing that.”
The child who had, a moment before, unbuckled her seatbelt to be nearer to the man, was confused. She had thought it was safe – now that they were in the parking lot – to clamber forward and throw her arms around his neck. She’d only meant to hug him, to tell him how grateful she was to him for taking her to the doll store, but then – the way his hair stood up like that, like short, sharp grass blades, freshly clipped – was like an invitation. “You have so much hair Poppy!” she had said, and she laughed as the end of each follicle brushed lightly against her naked palm. “It tickles!”
It was then that her fingertips grazed his scalp – accidentally, of course – but nonetheless the movement had triggered something deep inside the man; like a latch when it is pulled, a trap door suddenly opened into a bottomless pit of throbbing need, and the little girl stood waveringly on the precipice, unaware of any danger.
“Ohhhhhh. Yes. Do that.”
She wasn’t sure what “that” was. Her hands proceeded clumsily forward, fingers splicing his hair, experimenting. It reminded her of sitting at the kitchen counter running a comb through her doll’s hair. “—No, not like that!” the man interrupted. “Could you just–-? Use your fingers like you did before.”
This was not a request, the woman sitting in the driver’s seat observed; and she felt suffocated by the quiet, cloying urgency of his demand. Reaching out from behind the wheel she touched the girl’s arm lightly – not so as to alarm her, not to shame her – but to indicate that it would be better if she took a step back. “Baby,” she said, affecting to sound easy, natural, “You don’t need to rub Nonno’s head.”
The woman looked intently, reassuringly, at the little girl, who hesitatingly withdrew her hands. She saw how much, and how unreservedly, the girl loved this man, her grandfather; how she only wanted to please him and that she would do whatever he asked of her, if only to make things a little easier for him.
Suddenly – for one brief and terrifying instant – she could imagine what it must have been like for that other little girl, the one who’d believed that because it was within her power to do good to this man, she would have been cruel to withhold it. Perhaps this was why she’d never – consciously, at least – aspired to acquire power. Weren’t all forms of power a kind of burden, after all?
It was better, she had always thought, simpler, to be alone, without responsibility, without having to take anyone else’s feelings into consideration. Alone with her thoughts, her books, her self – to be a self, alone!
That would have been paradise to her, as a little girl.
But then – as now – she lived far outside of Eden. Then as now she had to contend with other people’s feelings. Their demands.
The words of Jesus rang out in her mind: “For I was hungry and you gave me meat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink… I tell you the truth, whatever you do unto the least of these, so also you do unto me.”
If she had learned anything about her father it was that he was one of the least of these. At least, he thought so; and he reminded her of it constantly. She’d grown up hearing all the stories; she knew them by heart. Like a deck of cards he kept hidden in his back pocket, he would pull them out one by one – sometimes three at a time – whenever he was in need of something – which was always.
This, she could see, was precisely what he was doing now.
At the sound of her words he started as though he had been struck. Glaring at her sharply from beneath the hood of his brow, he whimpered, “What? Why can’t she rub my head?” Each word was a vial of venom thrown in her face, in her eyes; it was poison liquid, running down her cheeks like tears.
“Because – she should not have to do that.”
“Why do you have to be so cruel?” He spoke as though he was dying of thirst and she was willfully depriving him of water.
The woman all but laughed. “Cruel?”
He sighed again, heavily, and at the sight of his distress the little girl was moved. Without thinking she put her hands back down on his head – her fingers began sifting through his hair, scratching his scalp, and as quickly as his hostility had been aroused, he relaxed, and closed his eyes again.
“Ohhhhh. Yes.” He was so tired. This was just what he needed after such a long, exhausting day. “Do we really have to go inside?” He was like a child begging permission to put off his homework. “Maybe Sophie and I will just stay here for a few minutes.“
The woman felt as though she were being impaled. She could taste outrage; she was bleeding disgust. “No,” she said breathlessly. “Sophie, go and get your sweater, please.”
“Come on, Claire.”
“Excuse me,” the mother said, turning her torso to face him squarely. “I said ‘no.’”
The man’s face contorted. He winced. He was so tired. Couldn’t she see how tired he was? He had had such a long day. “You’re just like your mother, you know that? You always say ‘no.’”
The woman was flabbergasted. “So let me understand,” she said, carefully enunciating each syllable so as to give him every opportunity to catch the full meaning of her words. “You would prefer to make your six-year-old granddaughter responsible for the meeting of those needs?” She looked at him fiercely – for just one moment it was the real her looking at the real him – then she turned away as though drawing a curtain, invisibly and forever.
She wouldn’t argue with him. And anyway, what could she have said? Something like: You ate me, but I won’t let you eat my daughter. That might have come close to the truth.
She turned to the child and smiled broadly: if this were the last particle of joy she had left in her heart she would give it with pleasure to the little girl. “Do you want to go into the doll store?”
The girl shrieked.
“Mommy! I almost forgot about Caroline!” she said, leaping back over the middle seat and clutching her doll. “Caroline, I would never forget about you!” She hugged the doll as though they had each suffered a long and unendurable separation, as though the world – which had been emptied like a jar of candy – was full again, was sweet.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said to her mother in a hushed, confidential tone. “I can either get Caroline’s birthday dress or her picnic dress. If I get her birthday dress, even though it’s not her birthday, she’ll have it when her birthday comes. But what if I want to take her on a picnic tomorrow?”
“That is a dilemma,” said the woman, ignoring the man beside her, who was lost – even to himself – in a gulf of self-pity. “Can I tell you something?” She twisted around so that her eyes and the girl’s eyes we perfectly aligned. Looking into them deeply, as in a mirror, she said, “I have a feeling that once presented with the options you’ll know exactly what to choose.”
For a moment the little girl stared hard at the doll as if searching for a clue. In her bright blue winter coat, with the gold buttons and the white fur collar, Caroline looked perfectly contented. Her sapphire eyes glittered, her mouth was fixed into a little half-smile, and the woman – the mother who had been a daughter once – was glad the child had something beautiful of her very own, which asked for nothing, but gave her so much joy.