Fiction · 05/04/2011

Freida

I can never get lost. One thing I like about living in Kenmore Square next to Fenway Park right below the CITGO sign — you can see it from anywhere in the city. Beneath that glowing sign I first met my wife Tara, one of these hefty, big boned treasures, a six-footer with shiksa freckles. I don’t draw anything from it, but the last Jewish girl I dated was in eighth grade.

Together we have a son, Sean, she chose the name, and this evening when I get home, I hear noises coming from the bathroom, so I shout her name, no answer, and when I’m down the hall into our bedroom, I push open the door, see her shaving our son’s head. Sean’s sitting on a stool, grinning his fool head off, the two of them laughing, and my hand slips off the doorknob. I barely hear my wife say, What is it? What’s wrong? and I’m back in Maine with Freida, the nurse at Camp Kinder Ring.

Freida had sleek blond hair, the pink calamine lotion, ice packs, and double D’s. Rumor was she had a soft spot for homesick boys; we had to find a way to see her. Others faked fevers, magic markered poison ivy, suddenly became allergic to peanuts. But on the porch of Dexter cabin, next to the wood balustrade into which we’d carved our names, I shook a shaker-full of kosher salt in my hair. I’d stolen it from the cafeteria. The boys said it would never work, unless it did, in which case they’d try it, too.

“I got lice,” I said, sitting down on a chair. Her white nurse’s skirt barely reached her knees. When she smiled I noticed her front tooth was turned in, which suddenly seemed like the most precious thing in the world, something I wanted to wear on a necklace.

She stood close to me. I didn’t know why a nurse would ever need lipstick. She ran her metal comb through my hair and my lap was covered in salt.

“And I’m homesick.”

She laughed. “You have real problems.” She held out her finger and sitting on the end, on the soft oval of ridges and whorls — really, how can that be different for everyone? — was a crystal of coarse white salt, a bright, shimmering grain as perfect as a star.

“This is a nit,” she said. “An egg. The louse lays thousands of these.”

She was wearing a white button-down cotton shirt and her toes were pink. I’d never seen a nurse or doctor wear sandals before, especially ones with a heel. “You’ve only come to visit me once,” she said, reading over my chart. Then she was standing so close to me that her smell tickled my nose — maybe an orchid perfume, maybe a milky woman’s soap, but unlike anything else in camp — and everything went hazy. I resolved right then and there to come back the next day with rabies, and a week later with the flu, and to never stop being sick.

Holding down her skirt with one hand, she bent over and from the drawer below the sink brandished a pair of metal clippers.

“It’s a shame,” she said, staring at my hair.

Tattoos and crew cuts were the only two things my mother had forbidden.

“What about lice shampoo?” I asked.

“This is an advanced case. You have a colony up there. Shampoo won’t cut it.”

My stomach dropped. Both my mother and sister had brown, brittle hair, which they wore pulled back in messy ponytails, but my hair had volume, height, and a ruthless fertility.

Freida stood between my legs and I leaned back. My mouth went dry. She pushed a knee forward until it was touching the inside of my thigh. “Your scalp must be a fireball,” she said, and I was about to call my own bluff, tell her the truth, but even at thirteen you know it’s fatal once you begin a lie not to see it through.

My mother swore I had Great Aunt Laura’s hair. The legacy of the Old World sat on my head, a mute, wavy reminder of Antipole. Once a village, it’s now a Russian Air Force base, and growing up my mother would sometimes read in the Yiddish paper about the earth coughing up a splintered fibula, half a jawbone, a cracked skull. I did not think of this when Freida held the clippers in a reverse grip and pressed them to the back of my scalp. I felt only the nibbling teeth. She carved back to front, ribbons of curls falling into my lap. Through the peek hole of her blouse’s top button I could see her bra — it wasn’t nude like my mother’s, but black, and everything smelled like I imagined a girl’s bedroom smelled or any place I’d ever been locked out of: so beautiful and forbidden that I had to hold back a sob, which caused my shoulders to shake, so she pinned my right shoulder down with one hand and shaved with the other. Soon my lap was full of loose curls. Only when she finally stepped aside and I saw myself in the mirror above the sink, saw the uneven outline of my skull, divots and nicks, only then did I remember how my mother, after one of those incidents at the Air Force base, set a huge pot of chicken soup foaming on the stove, and shut herself in her room for the day.

Because I hadn’t moved, Freida finally said to me, “You can go back to your cabin now.” She went to the sink, washing her hands, and over her shoulder said, “I’ll let the director know about the outbreak.” In a daze, I walked out holding a clump of hair from my lap, my heart beating furiously.

+

Buckets of ammonia were brought in from Bridgton, and in the late afternoon we had a mass cleansing, ordered to bring our belongings to the quad in front of the cafeteria. I stood in my cabin, stuffing a laundry bag with my t-shirts, my white underwear, my baseball caps, even my goddamn pillowcase. My mother used to keep an emergency bag by the front door in case she suddenly had to flee. Every Jew knows what he’d take, the precious few things he’d save if he were forced to leave home.

Freida did the dunking. Wearing a surgery smock and blue dishwasher gloves, she put each bundle in a net and dropped it into the vat of ammonia. I looked down the line and saw a row of shaved heads, boys stripped down to their boxers. They were rubbing their scalps, and I stared at the grass.

Freida was shouting, “Unchecked lice can bring a camp to its knees. Bring me your clothes, your linens. Hand them over to me.”

When I reached the front of the line, Freida said, “Well, well, well.” And I didn’t move, though I had every intention of staging some protest, of at least accusing her publically of knowing it was salt all along, or better yet, saying nothing, just grabbing her hair and yanking her head down into the ammonia. Or I would have liked her to do that to me, dunk my head just for the burn, the final insult to my body, but behind me the boys stood in a long queue with their bundles in hand, and I could feel their eyes on me, growing restless; one of them gave me a look that said, “This is your fault.” A lump rose in my throat, and I found that I was having a hard time looking higher than her nose. Just the shadow of a smile on her face when I dropped my bag into her vat of ammonia.

Now, standing here in our apartment in Kenmore Square, I’m watching my goyish wife shaving Sean’s head, whittling it down to a crew-cut like every kid in his class. His bare feet dangle from the chair, and I feel the tug of that irrevocable line from Aunt Laura to me to Sean; badly I want to tell him about Freida and the salt, but I can’t bring myself to speak. Everything at this moment feels that way, like one little lie gone so wrong.

+++

Spencer Wise is currently a PhD candidate in Fiction at Florida State University. His work has appeared in Time Out NY, SI.com, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, Quick Fiction, and The Southeast Review.