The Small Girl|
by Patrick D. Hahn
I'm lying on the sofa in my bungalow, reading the same issue of Discover magazine for the twenty-ninth time. They don't have much in the way of printed matter in this country. They don't have much in the way of anything, I'm thinking to myself, when I hear a knock at the door. I already know who it is, even before I get off the couch and fling open the door to find the Small Girl standing on my doorstep.
The Small Girl is sixteen years old. Polio has left her with a paralyzed arm and a limp. One eye wanders, and she slurs her words, as if talking with a mouthful of mush. Her name is Ayeshetu, her nickname is Ama, but I usually just call her the Small Girl.
"Oh joy," I exclaim. "Look who it is. It's the Small Girl. Now we can have Christmas after all." The Small Girl gives me a lopsided smile. This is all part of our riff, our daily ritual.
I turn around and walk back inside the bungalow. The Small Girl follows me inside, without being invited. This, too, is part of our ritual.
I clap my hands together. "Hey Small Girl!" I shout. "Make yourself useful! Fill up my water barrel." The Small Girl grabs a bucket and does as she is told. Meanwhile I get down on the floor and start doing my exercises. Some people might find it fatuous for me to be on the floor, doing push-ups, while this little girl—excuse me, this one-armed little girl—fetches water for me, but I firmly believe that you aren't doing anyone a favor by treating them as if they are helpless.
And besides, it isn't as if there's a whole lot else she can do for me. I hired her to clean my house once, and by the time she was finished, four hours later, I felt like she should be paying me for baby-sitting instead. I've hired her to cook for me, and that turned out to be a disaster—I get diarrhea from eating anything she touches.
After she finishes, I hand her a note for about twenty-five cents in the local currency. A pittance, to be sure, but this is a country in which the minimum wage is about seventy-five cents a day.
After she pockets the money, I ask her, "Did you pray for me today?"
"Yeth," she lisps.
"What did you pray for?"
"Dat you will give me money." My jaw drops in astonishment. Never in my life have I encountered such an utter lack of guile. The Small Girl looks on bemusedly as I double up with laughter.
"I am hungry," she intones solemnly. I hand her an orange. The Small Girl smiles condescendingly and shakes her head. "An orange doeth not thatithfy me," she explains.
"Okay," I tell her, "You can have bread and margarine." Again she smiles condescendingly and shakes her head. "Bread and mahgarine do not thatithfy me."
"Okay," I say, "You can have rice and margarine."
Another condescending little smile, another shake of the head. "Rithe and mahgarine do not thatithfy me."
"Okay," I say. "Whaddya want?"
"I like thtew." So I go to the refrigerator and fill a bowl with fried rice, ladle some eggplant stew on top, and hand the bowl to her. I ask her if she would like to sit down, but she says No. I ask her if she would like a spoon or a fork, but again she says No. As always, she eats her food cold, standing up, in the kitchen, with her fingers.
Afterwards, she washes out the bowl, and as usual she does a half-assed job. I have her wash it out again, and this time I stand over her to make sure she does it right. "You know, Babe," I tell her, "If you want to make a living as a professional freeloader, you're going to have to learn to tread a lot more lightly in other people's homes."
"Pashick," she says, slurring my name. "Give me money to do my transport."
"WHAT DO I LOOK LIKE?" I roar. "A FREAKIN' BANK?!" The Small Girl remains expressionless. This, too, is part of our riff.
Impulsively I ask, "Who cuts your hair?"
"No body," she murmurs.
"Whaddya mean, 'Nobody?' Somebody must cut your hair."
"Pashick," she says, without missing a beat, "Give me money to get my hair cut." Again she looks on bemusedly as I double up with laughter.
We repair to the living room. The Small Girl picks up a pocket-sized copy of Gideon's Bible from the coffee table and ask me, "Should I take?"
"Why do you want my Bible?" I ask her.
"I want to read the word of God," she quietly replies.
"Yeah, sure, you can have it," I tell her. It's not doing me any good. I already know where I'm going when I die.
We sit down on the couch together. The Small Girl pulls a battered notebook out of her bag to show to me. Every page is covered with original poetry she has written. Of course, it's all in her native language, so I can understand only a word here and there. She has already told me her ambition is to go to university and then get a job in broadcasting. I wonder if she has any idea how badly the odds in life are stacked against her.
I myself have tried to help her. I've paid her school fees for her, and purchased school uniforms and supplies. I once asked her why her family didn't help her, and she got uncomfortable and mumbled something about how "Not all families are good."
It's time for her to go. I see her to the door, and she turns around and blurts out, "Pashick—give me book."
"Book," she says, oddly emphatic. "Give me book." I have no idea what the Hell she is talking about, but presently she makes me understand that she wants some writing paper. I pick up and yellow pad and tear off five sheets and hand them to her. She folds the papers and places them in her bag along with the Bible, the loaf of bread, and the orange I've already given her.
The Small Girl promises to stop by tomorrow. "Oh joy," I exclaim. "I can hardly wait." For a moment I think about all the doors she must have slammed in her face.
She's doing what she has to do, I think to myself as I watch her hobble away. She'll never know how much I admire her.
Patrick D. Hahn has taught Biology for thirteen years at a number of colleges and universities in the United States and Africa. His work has appeared previously in JMWW and also in the Baltimore Writer's Project.
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