The female victim dwarfs the chair, the room itself. She looms, one of those morbidly obese people whose necks merge with shoulders, hands dimple, and thighs pucker. Where others taper, at ankles and wrists, she doubles up. Her long, too-black hair hangs down over her black sweater, past what should be her waist, to skim the chair seat. At the woman’s feet sits a little girl, cross-legged on the stained carpet.
“So you had just cashed your welfare check, and had the money in your bag?” David, the other counselor, prompts. The woman has been robbed. I sit at the desk across from David’s and put my bag in the bottom drawer. As I straighten up, I look into the face of the little girl. She is maybe four years old, or a very small five. Like her mother, she has long tangled hair. Unlike her mother, she is slight and skinny. Through the thin skin near her eyes, I see the dark threading of her veins. A sticky brown smear streaks her cheek.
“Well, hello. What’s your name?” I ask my visitor. She doesn’t answer, but reaches for a pen on my desk.
“Do you want to draw?” Still silence. I get out paper and a couple of pencils. Although she holds the pen, the little girl doesn’t start drawing. I take a pencil and draw the outlines of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. “Do you know who he is?” I ask pointing to Ernie. When no answer comes, I say “That’s Ernie.” I patter on as I add ears and eyebrows. She says nothing but puts her hand on the arm of my chair and leans in. Although it is cold outside, the girl wears a short-sleeved t-shirt under her jumper. The too-large shirt can’t hide the bruises that mottle the girl’s arm, the too-long jumper doesn’t cover her bare legs.
As I draw, she scoots in, her belly pressing against my knee. She makes a couple of squiggles on the page. “Wow, you really can draw,” I say. The girl moves in front of me on tiptoes to better reach the paper. “Here,” I say, “Why don’t you sit on my lap?” I hoist her up.
“Tatiana, leave that woman alone,” her mother interrupts the interview with David to say.
“She’s okay. She’s helping me draw.”
Tatiana reaches into the pocket of her jumper and extracts a small pink, very dirty doll’s hairbrush. She hands it to me and I begin to brush her hair. The soft bristles can’t pull out the tangles, so I take my own brush out of the bottom drawer. I grab short hanks of Tatiana’s hair and tease out the snarls. I work in sections from the bottom up. When I reach the top of her head, I score a part in the precise middle of her scalp. Tatiana’s head jerks slightly as I tug the hair back with the brush. The rhythm of the brush strokes lulls both of us, as our breath and the beating of our hearts begin to synchronize. Soon her oily hair lies smooth and shiny against her skull. I weave the hair into two long braids, securing the ends with rubber bands.
“You look very pretty,” I say. “Let’s go look in the mirror.” We walk across the hall to the ladies’ room. I lift Tatiana above the sinks to look in the mirror. As I set her down, she whispers “Can I live with you?” I say something, maybe about how her mother would miss her, or that I live with roommates, but her question stuns me. I wonder at the hardness of her life, that she would leave it all in the beat of her heart for someone to brush her hair.
teaches writing and ESL in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her work has appeared
in an anthology by Novello Press and as commentary on NPR.