Diane Payne

A License For Lice

        “Those lice are a sign of the devil,” Mary decides.

        “Will you quit talking like that? It’s from those dirty kids next door. Not the devil,” my mother says.

        “Ouch,” I scream.

        “Sit still,” my mother demands. “It ain’t easy pulling these lice out.”

        “The Bible said this would happen,” Mary reminds us.

        “Quit talking like that in front of my daughter.”

        “I’m telling you. The Bible said we’d get a plague of lice. We’ve been forewarned about this.”

        “Ma, my head hurts,” I cry. “Can we stop now?”

        “Not until we get all these dead lice combed out.”

        “We’re all gonna get lice and that shampoo won’t help.”

        “Mary, why don’t you go home? I can’t concentrate on those lice eggs with you talking crazy.”

        “I told you I’d comb her long hair. Give your arm a break. Here let me do it while you drink some coffee.”

        “Ma, you do it!”

        “It’s all right, Mary. Maybe tomorrow.”

        “Tomorrow?” I ask. “We have to do this again?”

        “The nurse won’t let you back into school until she comes here and checks your head. There can’t be one egg left.”       

        Everything was fine until the nurse came to school and called us out of our class to check our hair. I was glad to get out of Penmanship. We stood in the hallway, quietly whispering, wondering what the nurse was looking for in our hair. Every now and then the principal would take a kid to her office, but I didn’t know why until she took me.

        “We have to call your mother to come and get you. You have lice,” she said.

        “Lice? What’s that?” I asked.

        “They’re little bugs that are in your hair. All the kids with lice have to go home. When the lice are gone, you can come back.”

        “Bugs!” I started crying and the other kids who were waiting started laughing.

        “At least we don’t have to go to school,” Ricky remarked.

        My mother had said Ricky came from a dirty home. I knew she’d be mad when she found out both Ricky and I had lice.

        “You have to walk home now,” the principal said. “Your mother said she couldn’t pick you up. Go directly home,” she warned me.

        “Her mother doesn’t know how to drive,” Ricky laughed.

        “She does too,” I lied. “The car’s getting fixed today.”

        “Yeah, right,” Ricky smirked.

        Walking home, I wished my mother had her license and we had a car. Having lice wouldn’t have been so bad if my mother could have picked me up and drove me home, privately assuring me that the lice would be gone . The other kids with lice were waiting for their mothers to pick them up. Their mothers would talk to the principal and she’d think better of them because they came for their children.

        “Lice! Where did you get lice,” my mother screamed when I entered the house. “I keep a clean house. What will the neighbors think?”

        I started crying after seeing that my mother was so upset. My crying calmed her down. “It’s not your fault,” she reasoned. “Those lice jumped on your long hair from someone else’s head. We’ll walk to the pharmacy and get some shampoo to kill those bugs.”     

        “You mean there’s going to be dead bugs in my hair?” I screamed.

        “I’ll comb them out. We got to kill them first. I’ll buy a fancy comb that will get them out of your hair. We got a long night ahead of us.”

        “I’m sorry, Ma, “ I apologized. “I didn’t mean to get lice.”

        “It ain’t your fault.”      

        I believe her until Mary said it was in the Bible. Then I knew I had sinned. I shouldn’t have stolen that piece of candy from the drug store. God knew. He always finds everything out.

        After Mary leaves, I start crying while my mother combs my hair, strand by strand. “Quit crying,” she begs. “We’re almost finished.”

        “I got lice because I sinned.”

        “Don’t talk like that. Mary gets crazy ideas in her head when she thinks about religion. Don’t listen to her. God didn’t give you these.”

        “He did. I’ve been bad,” I sob.

        “We’re all bad sometimes and we don’t all have lice.”

        “But we will. It’s a plague.”

        “Quit talking like that. This shampoo will kill your lice and those other kids will have the same shampoo. Then there will be no more lice. Don’t listen to Mary when she talks about God. She likes to think about disasters and sin. It ain’t healthy to think like her.”

        Late that night, my mother finishes combing my hair and I go to bed. I keep feeling those lice crawling in my hair and I’m certain they’re eating my scalp. Above my bed I see God laughing. “See what happens when you steal candy,” he whispers in a rough voice.

        When I finally fall asleep, I dream Mary has lice. She never bothers to buy the shampoo and fancy lice comb. Instead, she stands in front of our church and acts like the minister, shaking her hair at us, screaming, “We were warned. This is one of the Seven Deadly Plagues. The world is going to end soon.”

        The congregation starts to wail. Then my mother stands up and yells, “No one ever died of lice! Go home and wash your hair, Mary.”

        When I wake, I believe that my lice has made my mother strong and I hope I’ll quit stealing. In a way, I feel a little sad that I won’t be experiencing a plague, but I have hopes that my mother’s new courage will convince her to get that license.