INTRODUCTION BY MAT JOHNSON
I’ve re-read Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut collection Sabrina & Corina more times than I can even count. I read it in draft, in proofs, and finally in hardcover, the weight of the accomplishment in my hands. And every time I finish the last word with the same reaction: it’s just so damn good. Fajardo-Anstine’s stories have attitude and swagger and then, just when you get used to that rhythm, they sucker-punch you with an emotional weight that you just can’t be ready for. Her work never falls into sentimentalism. Instead, each story earns the right to be tender, sensitive, sometimes melancholic, and always heartfelt.
“Remedies” is one of my favorites in the book, and if you read it you’ll see why. It’s one of the rare stories where I still can’t tell you whose tale it is, and that’s its brilliance. Does it belong to the narrator, looking back on the lice-infested half-brother who reminds her of her deadbeat dad? The brother himself, neglected and abandoned yet somehow not bitter? Or the absentee father who leaves an emotional vacuum behind him? Or does it belong to the mother, struggling to atone for a loss outside of her control? It could be each of theirs, or all of theirs. The decision will be made by the reader, likely based on which version breaks their heart most.
With her idiosyncratic depictions of the lives of latinx and native women of the American West, Fajardo-Anstine obliterates the “one voice” idea about writers of color as the fallacy it is. Like the best debut short story collections, Sabrina & Corina reveals a literary voice that simply hasn’t been heard before. Listen to “Remedies.” See a world that’s never before been caught on the page. Watch how it dances with a straight razor. Realize you’ve been cut when it’s already too late.
–Mat Johnson, author of Loving Day and Pym
Dad’s Gone and the Lice Is Here to Stay
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by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
A dermatologist with a can of liquid nitrogen can remove a wart in four to five seconds. I can remove one overnight with a clove of garlic and a Band-Aid. Your fingers will stink for days, but the wart will never come back. You won’t have to bite or scratch at it until blood rushes over the spongy lining. You can hold someone’s hand without shame or embarrassment.
I learned how to do this from my great-grandmother Estrella. She taught me all the remedies she learned from her own grandma on their pueblo in northern New Mexico. If you have a stomachache, drink chamomile tea with honey at the hottest temperature possible without scalding your tongue. If you have a headache, put slices of potato at your temples and let them draw out the pain. If you have a cold or a broken heart, drink a warm cup of atole made only with blue corn.
Our lice came from Harrison, though Mama didn’t realize it was him the first time. She just tried washing my hair with mayonnaise. She heard about this trick from another hygienist at the dentist’s office and came home with a big jar of Kraft, the good stuff. She held my head over the kitchen sink, took a serving spoon, and plopped hunks of mayo across my scalp. With a Marlboro Light bumping up and down on her lip, she swirled the mess into my long brown hair until my entire head was soppy and warm. As she puffed smoke in and out of her lipstick mouth, I could see the missing tooth on her right side, the spot she always hid from everyone, including me. After she finished, she put a plastic bag over my hair, tying it at the middle of my neck with a rubber band.
“Here,” she said, pointing with her red nails to a chair at the kitchen table. “Sit for fifteen minutes, jita.”
She dashed out her cigarette on a saucer and parted her own dark hair, leaning over the countertop and examining her pale scalp with a teal Cover Girl compact mirror. Her gaze went up and down and back again. Mama then snapped shut the compact and looked at me.
“All right, baby girl. Put your head over the sink.”
With my face dropped into the sink’s chrome basin, Mama rinsed my hair as her large breasts pressed into my back. Hot water spilled over the front of my Tweety Bird T-shirt, soaking my neck and chest. I whined, fighting back nausea from the egg-smell of my own head.
“Mama,” I said. “Why can’t we just ask Grandma Estrella about lice?”
“Look at me.” She turned my body around and dried the water from my face with the bottom of her T-shirt. “You can never tell your grandma Estrella you have lice.”
I tried to ask her why, but Mama shoved my head back under the faucet and kneaded my hair with her strong hands the way I had seen Grandma Estrella knead masa on Christmas Eve. As my brown hair wetly twisted, water rushed into my eyes, blurring my vision, but I swore I saw white lice eggs against the drain’s black pit.
It was snowing the first time we picked up Harrison. Mama drove us to an apartment on Grant Street in downtown Denver and we huddled in our scarves and secondhand Sorels beneath the red-tarp awning at the front entrance.
Mama pushed a button on the intercom and a sleepy voice answered, “Who is it?”
“It’s us,” she said. “Millie and Clarisa.”
A quick buzz vibrated the brass speaker box and Mama pulled on the lobby’s door handle. Before we stepped inside, she hesitated, looking down at me.
“Now, this is your brother,” Mama said quietly. “I know you haven’t met him and I know that we never see Daddy anymore, but Harrison isn’t as fortunate as you are, so be kind to him.”
After I promised to be nice, we went inside, where the carpets were puke green and the ceiling was made of tin. We walked up a flight of creaking stairs while competing smells of garlic and mildew followed us. At the end of the second-floor hallway, Mama knocked hard on 13B.
Harrison’s mom answered the door. She wore an enormous pink sweatshirt with the neck cut away, showing a star tattoo on her upper left shoulder. Her thin blond hair was pulled high on her head in a sloppy bun, and when she smiled, her teeth were very crooked.
“Oh, hi,” she said. “Harrison, come here, Son.”
He appeared next to her, hunched over and skinny, looking downward at the floorboards.
“Have fun with your sister,” his mom said in her drowsy voice before handing him a backpack. She leaned over and kissed Harrison on the forehead. Behind her, I could see some of their apartment, a dusty living room with a sagging brown couch covered in laundry. There were pairs of crinkled and silky underpants beneath a grimy glass coffee table.
Harrison’s mom rubbed her eyes with both hands, smearing her makeup until a speck of mascara floated inside her left eye. “He never said you were such a nice lady.” She then blew a kiss to her son before closing the apartment door.
Mama flashed a warm smile. “Do you remember me? I met you when I came over to talk to your mom. You’re going to stay with us for a couple days.”
Harrison nodded and scratched his head. “You brought Tootsie Rolls.”
“Gross.That candy sucks,” I whispered.
Mama jabbed the back of my neck with her long red nails. “This is Clarisa. She’s your half-sister. You guys are almost the same age.”
“You’re ten?” Harrison asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m eleven. I’m short for my age.”
“I’m not,” he said. “My mom says I get that from my dad.” The three of us started down the hallway, and I was surprised when we walked past a bathroom built into the wall, like a lime-green coat closet. I peered inside at an old porcelain bathtub with claws at the bottom. Grandma Estrella had a tub like that in her upstairs bathroom. I asked Mama about it and she told me that in the old days people shared bathtubs. They shared everything, she explained. But later when I asked Grandma Estrella, she told me those hallway bathrooms were only in buildings where dirty people lived, people who did awful things for a living, people she prayed for each night before she rubbed cold cream on her face in slow upward strokes, because downward caused wrinkles.
Grandma Estrella lived in a red-brick Victorian house on the edge of a park named Benedict. She was a short, wide woman who wore long colorful skirts and carried on her skin the scent of rose oil and Airspun face powder. She lived alone, since my great-grandpa passed away before I was born and their only daughter died in a car crash when Mama was just four years old. Mama and I lived with Grandma Estrella after Daddy left, and even after we got our own townhouse in Northglenn, we visited her every weekend—except when Harrison came over. Mama said it was because we were busy, but I knew the truth. While Grandma Estrella hated all of Harrison, she only felt that way about half of me, my father’s half, the white half.
One weekend, while I was staying over Grandma Estrella’s, we baked cookies she called biscochitos. We were in her big kitchen with all the windows open, the yellow curtains rising and falling with a breeze. We watched Bewitchedon the countertop TV, and when the episode ended, Jerry Springer came on. “Ah, mija, I hate watching these hillbilly white people,” Grandma Estrella said. “Look at this man.” She was using a large wooden roller to point at the TV. “He was given every chance to make it in this world and what did he do? Threw it away on booze and drugs and can’t take care of his family. Just like your father.”
“I guess,” I said, licking my spoonful of raw cookie dough.
“Him leaving your life was the best thing that ever happened to you and your mother. If he wouldn’t have left on his own, I would have chased him off myself.”
I laughed. “You’d chase him, Grandma Estrella? With what?”
“A broom, or maybe a coat hanger. There are many tools. Now, my baby, switch the station. I want to watch my stories.” I wiped my flour-covered hands on the white-lace apron she had made especially for me and clicked the dial to channel seven. The picture was soft on purpose, part of the show. White people with diamonds and pretty eyelashes kissed or lied and cheated on each other. That’s how Grandma Estrella liked her people on TV—rich and scandalous.
Grandma Estrella said, “Doesn’t Tiffany look gorgeous this week? Why don’t you grow your hair like that, mija? A girl’s hair should always be long.”
I looked at the ends of my brown hair. “It quits growing after my shoulders.”
“Nonsense. I know some herbs you can make into a tea.”
Grandma Estrella closed her tiny eyes behind her large glasses and silently moved her lips as if she were reading different scraps of paper in her mind. After some time, she opened her mouth, the ridges in her face spreading wide and smoothing over, making her appear young again, if only for a second.
“I’ll tell you the recipe for long hair, mija, but you must be cautious with this tea.”
“Cautious?” I asked.
“Vanity is risky, my baby. Let me tell you, you had a great-great-aunt, Milagros, the same Milagros your mother is named after, and she used the herbs too often and her black hair grew so long and so beautiful that all the men in our pueblo and even from far away wanted to marry her, but she would not choose one because she believed the longer and more beautiful her hair grew, the better her choices of husbands would be until one night, when the rest of the children were sleeping soundly in the same bedroom, her hair coiled around her neck like a snake, squeezing all the life from her throat.”
“That really happened?”
“Of course! You’re calling me a liar?”
I pushed my dough scraps into the wastebasket and wondered what my own hair was capable of.
Whenever Harrison stayed over, Mama pulled out the extra comforter, the one with holes and all the cotton bunched together in the corners. She’d spread it over the couch, making up a little bedroom for him, where they’d sit for hours, watching movies and laughing. Mama often asked Harrison questions, and they were usually about our dad.
“Does Daddy ever send you presents?”
“One time he did. A Hot Wheels set.”
“Oh, wow,” Mama said, reaching out and stroking his neck. “What about your mama? Does he send her money to help out?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“I hope so. He can afford it. You know, Harrison,” she added with a sincere smile, “you look so much like Daddy. It’s like you’re him but as a little boy.”
Each time I walked into the living room, I looked at Harrison’s slumped-over body on the couch and felt something like hot blacktop tar in my guts. I hated to be around him. I didn’t care that Mama said I should feel sorry for him because our dad was long gone and his mom had problems with drinking and taking pills. Imagine if I slept all day, Mama told me. You’d never get a warm meal.
With Harrison in our living room, the whole townhouse smelled as bad as his apartment building. He had dark bags under his eyes, like someone hit him real hard and never let him heal. His T-shirts had holes in the sleeves and his jeans were worn thin, covered in a fine layer of dirt at the butt and knees. The worst part, he smelled like pee.
“Hey, Harrison, why don’t you use that bathtub in the hallway at your crappy apartment?”
“No one uses that, Clarisa. It’s busted and old.”
“You probably should. You smell like a litter box.”
“No, I don’t. I took a shower today!”
“Why does my mom have to take care of you, anyway? What’s wrong with your own mom?”
“Nothing. She’s just my mom.”
Harrison never had a comeback and he never told on me for being mean. Instead, he acted crazy. In the middle of the afternoon, he’d open my dresser drawers, stick his face against my T-shirts and jeans, turn on and off our microwave, and ask annoying questions that made me wonder what his life was like at home.
“Do you get recess even when it snows real bad?”
“No, we have an inside day.”
“How about your teacher—is she nice? What color is her hair?”
“For your information, my teacher is a guy.”
“A guy, really?”
“Leave me alone. Don’t you go to school, too?”
“What about our dad? Why doesn’t he want to see any of us?”
“Maybe he doesn’t want lice.”
He was only a year younger, but even then I knew we were worlds apart. What I hated most about Harrison—besides that each time he came over, the lice came back—was that my mother was right. He looked like my dad. Even as a little boy, he looked like Daddy.
I was nine years old the last time we spent Christmas with Daddy. He was up unusually early, no black bags under his eyes or sour breath reeking of beer and cigarettes. He was happy, smiling and kissing Mama on the mouth. We played airplane and he whirled me around his one-bedroom apartment, giggling and cheering, my arms open like little wings. Mama cooked all day—ham, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, cornbread. No Christmas tamales like at Grandma Estrella’s, though. He never liked that.
We were together, sitting at his fold-out card table in the corner of the living room, when Daddy started the prayer. I gazed at the creases around his dark eyes, wondering if I would get those someday. I loved being near him when I could—loved it when he cupped his hand on the back of my neck and I could feel his calluses coarse against my skin. He reminded me of work, of cars, that special orange soap he used to wash away grease.
“Millie,” he said. “You forgot the butter, honey.”
Mama glanced at me and asked if I would be nice enough to get Daddy some butter. I hopped out of my chair and headed for the tiny kitchen. I walked by the overflowing garbage, where a sparkling green Christmas card was shoved beneath empty green bean cans and cracked eggshells. I don’t know why I did it, but I stuck my hand inside the trash, pulling out the mushy card. When I opened it, a picture fell out of a little boy with dark eyes and light brown hair swinging a baseball bat. I stared into his face for a long time.
“Clarisa,” Mama yelled from the table. “Did you find it?”
I shoved the Christmas card as far as I could back into the garbage. I grabbed the butter for the table and told my parents that I would be right back—that I needed to wash my hands before dinner.
In Social Studies, I scratched and scratched until a louse slid down the back of my neck and onto Chantel Sanchez’s desk. She screamed so loud that the principal heard it from his office, or that’s what the other kids claimed. It was the fourth time in a year that I had gotten lice from Harrison. I was sent home from school, indefinitely, until the issue was resolved. “Expelled due to health hazards” is what the official pink slip read. Mama was more upset than usual about the lice. She tried mayonnaise, then olive oil, then rubbing alcohol, then over-the-counter shampoos. By the time she had finished, I thought I would never go back to school.
The next Saturday, Mama took Harrison and me to a hair salon in a part of town called Wash Park. The salon was painted blue and white with mirrors in every direction. Techno music came out of the ceiling speakers and the floor was lightly scented with ammonia. The hairdressers were vibrant with colorful hair and face piercings. They had names like Celeste, Luna, and Sky. I flipped through a booklet with different hairstyles, showing Mama cuts I thought she might like.
“Look at her bangs,” I said, folding the page over for Mama to see.
“Those are nice, jita. You guys are also getting haircuts.”
“Here?” Harrison looked up from his seat, a surprised expression on his face.
“Yup. Don’t need to worry about picking out anything new. I told the ladies what to do.”
My hair had recently grown extra-long with the help of Grandma Estrella’s tea. Mama normally took me to Cost Cutters for a trim, but last time, we were refused service. No one gave a reason why, but I knew it must have been lice.
When a woman called my name, I jumped out of my seat and I stuck out my tongue to Harrison. He ignored me, scratching his head. Then another lady called his name. They brought us to a row of black spinning chairs, seating us side by side. My hairdresser snapped peppermint gum in her mouth. She had glitter across her eyelids and her teeth were the whitest and biggest I had ever seen, like those white ladies in Grandma Estrella’s stories. After she parted my hair with a black comb, she pointed beside me to Harrison, draped in a purple cape.
“Are you guys twins?” she asked. “What do they call that, paternal?”
“No,” said the lady cutting Harrison’s hair. “It’s fraternal.”
“That’s it,” my hairdresser said. “You sure do look about the same age.”
Harrison giggled. “I wish we were twins. That’d be cool.”
“He’s just my half-brother,” I said.
The hairdressers shared a knowing look and I glanced away, toward the front windows.
Outside, seagulls dived between street lamps. The sun was going down and the whole neighborhood was a shadowy pink. A family carrying pizza boxes walked together through the parking lot. It was a mom, a dad, and three little boys. The mom was laughing, pointing at her husband, who had grabbed a shopping cart and was riding the back like a scooter. His sons tried copying him. They wobbled everywhere, and the mom seemed worried. For just a second, I felt jealous of that family, their happiness and togetherness. Maybe if I had always known Harrison, we could have been friends. But instead, he reminded me of Daddy, the only person who had ever left me. The family then walked out of sight and I looked back at the mirror.
That’s when I burst into tears.
My long hair was gone, gathered across the floor like piles of dust. The hairdresser kept asking what was wrong, but all I could do was clutch my short hair, wetter in the front from all my tears.
“Don’t cry, Clarisa,” I heard Harrison say. He was whimpering quietly. His head had been shaved completely bald.
I stood up then and looked for Mama. She was behind us at another station, her expression downturned and sorrowful. Her long black hair had been trimmed into a spiky undercut with short bangs. When her eyes met mine, she mouthed something, maybe sorry.
On our way out, Mama handed the receptionist a check and one of the women tried selling her an antidandruff shampoo.
“You know, the kids both have it pretty bad,” the woman insisted. “This will help for sure.”
Mama shook her head, her short hair stationary against her scalp. “Thanks, but we’ll try some home remedies first.”
Mama was crying. Harrison and I heard her when we were fighting over whose turn it was for the only working Nintendo controller. At first it sounded like the neighbor’s dog yipping, but it grew louder and steadier. I threw down the controller and Harrison followed me. Sitting on the toilet with the lid closed, her head in her hands, Mama was itching and pulling at her short hair, red bumps all over her scalp and neck. Snot and tears dripped down her face, over her lips, and onto the front of her white shirt. I stood in the doorframe, afraid to go near her. I had only seen her like this one other time—when Daddy left for good.
“They won’t go away.” She sobbed into her hands, gargling a bit.
“They just won’t go away.”
Harrison stood behind me, his dark eyes filling with tears that lingered above his bottom lashes. I could see the bathroom reflected in his eyes—Mama, alone, on the toilet with hair in her lap and across the floor. I wanted to scream at him to leave, to walk home, take a bus, find some way to get out of our lives, but instead I just told him to watch Mama while I ran to the kitchen and did what I was never supposed to do—I called Grandma Estrella.
I told her what happened, and had been happening for months. She screamed so loud that when she finished, I heard true silence in our townhouse kitchen. Dust sifted through shoots of sunlight. Water dripped from the chrome faucet. The phone’s cord slowly rolled. Everything was calm until Mama’s sobs bumped throughout the hallway, interrupting the dead air. She didn’t hit me or scream at me when I told her Grandma Estrella was expecting us. Mama got up from the toilet lid, silent and red-faced, and walked to the car, as if she had been expecting this day from the beginning.
When we arrived, Grandma Estrella stood on her porch, one hand over her eyes, scanning the yard with a watchful, hawk-like gaze. She wore a wavering purple skirt, the brick house like a castle behind her. Mama parked and got out of her car, flicking a cigarette into the road as she walked us to the porch.
“Look at your hair,” Grandma Estrella said. “Every one of you.”
“It’ll grow back,” Mama said, quickly wiping tears from her face.
Grandma Estrella grunted some. She stepped aside and motioned with both hands for us to follow her. Before she opened the front door, she reached out to Harrison’s small hand and introduced herself as Mrs. Lopez. Harrison’s dark eyes grew wide and seemed to fill with wonder. It was like he didn’t have grandparents of his own, and I realized he probably didn’t.
“All of you, upstairs.”
We climbed the cherry-oak staircase to the upstairs bathroom. The long white porcelain basin of the claw-foot tub rested in the otherwise dark room. It was cold, though the windows were cloaked in fog from a steaming metal pot on the floor, the pot Grandma Estrella normally used for menudo. She told all of us to get on our knees and drape our heads, facedown, over the bathtub. The porcelain was chilly against my neck and arms. Grandma Estrella used to bathe me there when I was younger, working my knees and elbows with a washcloth and Ivory soap. Once, I asked her why she needed to scrub so hard it hurt. “Because we are not dirty people,” she had said. Later, when I asked Mama about it, she told me when Grandma Estrella was a little girl, her own teachers called her a dirty Mexican and it never left her, the shame of dirt.
Slowly, from behind me, I felt Grandma Estrella pour bitter water over my head, a liquid made from something called neem that had a thick rootlike stench. Grandma then combed my short hair, harsh and fast, pressing into my scalp. When she finished, she told me to stand up.
“Mija, take this. Make sure to get the backside of their necks to the front side above their foreheads.”
She placed the heavy pot in my hands. “But I don’t think I can lift it.”
“Don’t be such a malcriada.”
I braced myself, steadied my knees, and lifted the pot. My arms trembled as I poured the liquid over Harrison’s small neck, seeing for the first time how incredibly scabbed and bitten he was.
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“No, Clarisa,” he said, muffled and soft. “I’m sorry they don’t go away.”
“Don’t worry. This time it’ll work.”
As I finished pouring the water over Harrison’s head, Grandma Estrella got on her knees and began rubbing his scalp with a white towel.
“Don’t get it down my back,” Mama said. She was tense against the tub, gripping the rim with white-knuckled hands. She kept looking back at me, squinting. That’s when I noticed she was shaking, her legs and wrists trembling. Grandma Estrella had put down her white towel and was leaned over Mama. She reached out, letting her hands lightly rest on Mama’s head, as if she was protecting her from the cold.
Grandma Estrella whispered, “That man and his choices are behind you now.”
Mama said, “I just wanted him to know he has a sister.”
“And now he does, my baby, but none of this is your place.”
She then danced her fingers over Mama’s neck, motioning for me to begin pouring, wetting her skin along with Mama’s.
The next day, Mama put on a full face of makeup, ran mousse through her lice-free hair, and dropped Harrison off at his apartment on Grant Street. I waited outside in the car, looking up at the window I knew was his. I wanted to catch a glimpse of him, my only brother in the world. I watched until he finally appeared. With his skinny arms, he reached up, and closed the blinds. It was the last time we dropped him off anywhere.
Before Grandma Estrella died, she gave me a booklet of all her remedies. Inside, with an unsteady hand she had drawn pictures of plants and, beneath them, their Spanish names, their scientific names, and just for me, their English names. I can cure head lice, stomach cramps, and bad breath with the right herbs. For the most part, I stick to over-the-counter remedies. They are cleaner and work faster and come in packages with childproof lids. But every once in a while, when I get a real bad headache and the aspirin isn’t cutting it, I take slices of potatoes and hold them to my temples, hoping the bad will seep out of me.
I see Harrison every now and then in the city at parties or shows. He’s a bass player in a punk band called the Roaches. He’s tall now with a serious yet hopeful face. Sometimes I wonder if my dad looked like him as a young man when both our mothers fell for his shit. Other times, I wonder if he’s still giving everyone lice. But I doubt it.
A couple months back, I was outside Lancer Lounge and through the windows I saw Harrison inside on the platform stage, bent over a microphone, a black cord rolled around his arm. When he stood up, we shared a look for a long time before I smiled, pointing to his blue Mohawk.
“Nice hair,” I mouthed, and Harrison smiled back, as if he could hear me through the glass.
About the Recommender
Mat Johnson is the author of the novels Pym, Drop, and Hunting in Harlem, the nonfiction novella The Great Negro Plot, and the comic books Incognegro and Dark Rain. He is a recipient of the United States Artist James Baldwin Fellowship, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. He is a faculty member at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program.