By Cathy Warner
I’d only known her a month when Blythe called with a problem: The family puppy had parvo. She needed money. Would I pay her twenty-five dollars in exchange for a massage?
Blythe lived in a run-down cabin up the road from our remodeled cabin. She had three grubby kids whose noses always ran, a grimy husband who drove a rusty van, and was missing two teeth (my eyes always focused on the gaps).
I didn’t know what parvo was (expensive and deadly) and I’d never had a massage. My husband drove a company car and worked in Silicon Valley, we had two clean and intelligent daughters, and I had all my teeth—straightened and shiny.
I was used to rescuing struggling family members, doling out advice and funds. But I didn’t do so with the cheerful heart God apparently admired. I gave fearfully. My checks were readily cashed, but my advice was never taken, trouble always returned, and somehow I felt responsible. If only I’d done more….
I offered money without the exchange, but Blythe refused. One fall morning while our children were at school, our husbands at work, she wedged a folding massage table into my bedroom, asked for a sheet and blanket, spread them over the padding, told me to remove as much clothing as I felt comfortable with, and stepped out while I changed.
We were almost strangers and I was going to pay her to touch me so she could save her dog.
I kept on my underwear and slid under the blanket.
She was good with her hands—licensed and had practiced where they’d lived before—kneading the knots in my neck while she told me about herself, but I didn’t relax much. I found myself less bothered with my draped nakedness than with her self-exposure.
Blythe went to Jazzercise and afterward to the local bakery with me, a group of other moms, and our children. Her youngest, a boy, who picked his nose and rarely spoke, sat in her lap, licking donut frosting off his filthy fingers, while she spoke about her husband’s marijuana use, his insistence she keep her hair long, and his desire for anal sex, which she kept refusing.
I glanced at my daughters, sitting at the next table, and resisted the urge to pull them from the warm bakery onto the cold sidewalk, yeast and sugar wafting after us. I didn’t know what to say, so I gulped my tea and scalded my mouth.
She left him after he raped her, took the three kids (the dog didn’t survive) and moved into a two-room cabin at the other end of the same road. He drove the van to Mexico.
Head lice hit that winter. Everyone had lice, more than once. Classroom volunteers, like me, grew proficient at head checks. With pencil tips we picked and combed, looking for tiny nits.
I purchased special shampoo and combs, slathered my girls’ heads, popped on plastic caps, and sent them to watch TV while my husband and I stuffed toy animals and quilts into Hefty bags to set aside for two weeks so anything that might hatch would die.
I washed everything, sprayed tea-tree oil on our furniture, vacuumed, combed through my girls’ hair, wiped nits onto Kleenex, flushed them, and soaked the combs in alcohol.Eradicating lice was inconvenient; it took time and energy, but it was doable.
For Blythe it was nearly impossible. She had no washer or dryer and no spare bedding. Their two mattresses rested on the carpet, and clothes were piled along the walls. Lice could breed anywhere and they did.
She called me one rainy Saturday afternoon and asked if I would check her for lice. My husband had checked my hair when I’d begun itching during our cleanup (the power of suggestion). Who else could Blythe ask? Her kids?
Her overheated cabin reeked of unwashed clothes, bodies, and dishes mingling with insecticidal shampoo. I sat on a mattress, breathing through my mouth.
Blythe sat on the floor in front of me, head bowed. Her hair was red, thick, and hung to her waist. I worked through it from forehead to floor, touching every flake of dandruff and gummy skin I’d learned to distinguish from nits, and nits. It took hours.
She was more exposed than I had ever been receiving my massage and I knew it.
At school, mothers (Blythe told them) were angered by Blythe’s nerve and upset by my cooperation, worried it might’ve been them. I said it wasn’t so bad, that we’d all benefit if her family conquered lice.
But there was more to Blythe than trouble and need.
She cut her hair short, and her daughters’ too. They came to Vacation Bible School and stayed when school started. Blythe joined my women’s prayer group. Freed from her circumstances, bound only to God and the hands we clasped, she freely voiced her troubles. But she went further: she added thanksgiving, praise, and hope, ending her prayer with, “Blessed Be.”
Our children found new friends, we drifted apart, she moved to another town and when I saw Blythe ten years later, she had remarried, finished graduate school, and was in the process of becoming a marriage and family therapist.
She handed me a flier offering free massages for the homeless. We hugged goodbye. She smiled, the teeth still missing.
I thought Blythe had been my most difficult neighbor. I was afraid of her requests because I couldn’t say no. My family used blame and shame to assure we always said yes to one another, thinking and hoping consent meant love, and desperately craving both.
I can say no now, and now I understand that Blythe’s asking truly was a request. If I refused, she would have asked someone else without resentment.
I used to think I was the one loving my poor troubled neighbor.
Cathy Warner is the literary editor for Good Letters and a graduate of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. Retired from parish ministry, she lives with her husband on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where she hosts a writers retreat and blogs about remodeling.